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How to manage a cross-cultural workforce

A key reason for joining Morgan McKinley for me was its global footprint.  

For most of my career I’ve worked in multi-national businesses, and I’ve always enjoyed the breadth of experience it brings, not to mention some fantastic business trips (okay, pre the crash anyway!). 

Working in HR, I’ve supported office openings and growth in most continents, which has meant learning and understanding many different legal and cultural landscapes, and I also currently lead a team based in 4 different countries. 

With the increasingly diverse domestic workforce and the globalisation of business, I see cultural competence as one of the the most important skills for effective leadership today.  Here are my top 3 tips for managing a cross-cultural workforce:-

1. Facilitate meaningful relationships

Global teams work better when people get to know each other. In my experience, people will go that extra mile for one another the better they know them. They’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, support them and are just generally better at collaborating. If you can, arrange for people to met face-to-face.  By visiting different locations it also enables hosts to convey valuable information about the local culture and people's personal lives. Colleagues have a much better sense of the lives that people lead, what’s important to them, and how to collaborate.

Now this might seem obvious, but it’s easier said than done given tight travel budgets, the disruption to work and family, and the enormous carbon footprint associated with global travel. Nowadays, it’s generally not feasible to give people the opportunity to meet face-to-face.

At Morgan McKinley we’re strategic about when and how we get our teams gets together; like our annual APAC leadership conference, an opportunity to share knowledge and experience and importantly to socialise. We squeeze as much as we can into these few days and it pays in dividends.
We also exploit technology like Skype, Google Hangouts and video conferencing to facilitate meetings, 1-2-1s and training.  I’ve even conducted interviews using Facetime!
My tip … get to different locations if you can, and help facilitate that within your business. Failing that, use technology - face-to-face (even virtually) really makes a big difference.

2. Understand and appreciate differences

My profession is HR. People typically call on me to help them solve people related opportunities and challenges. Of course it’s important I understand the legal landscape, that’s a given, but of more importance in my view is understanding ‘how things are done around here?’, and boy does it vary! To give some stark examples; in the US, people tend to get down to business fairly quickly, with conversations being an opportunity to exchange information and people get frustrated if you don’t get to the point. But in contrast, in Japan people prefer to communicate indirectly, especially when it comes to a sensitive topic. So to avoid inadvertently damaging a relationship or causing someone to lose face, people approach problems through subtle hints, vague references, or general statements.

In order to do business well you need to understand and appreciate this cultural context. Try to see the world as others see it. This can be a challenge if you haven’t visited the particular office or location, so you should ask people in the know.
My tip … Seek out the culture gurus in your business. These are typically multilingual professionals who have already lived, worked, and studied for extensive periods outside their home regions. They have a positive attitude toward cultural differences, knowledge of different cultural practices and the ability to understand and communicate with people whose backgrounds differ from their own. Ask them, ‘how do things get done around here?’

3. One size doesn’t fit all

Morgan McKinley has grown organically as well as through acquisition, and consequently we have worked through a number of programmes and projects which have sought to standardise how we deliver our strategy, and which ultimately have been key to our organisation having a strong and congruent culture. However, what I have learnt is that we should not assume that if a practice works in one place, it will in another. Best practices are optimised for a particular place and time and don’t necessarily transfer well between different locations.

My tip … Focus on the goals and outcomes, not how to do it. This creates space for people to adapt to the cultural context whilst still realising the underlying intention. Strive for compatibility, not replication. 

  • Sep 23, 2016
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Andrea Webb

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